Reading Infinite Jest

TJ Alabi 14 May 2019
Corey Coyle, via Wikimedia Commons

David Foster Wallace was talented and troubled, but we shouldn’t let this distract us from his abuse and misogyny towards writer Mary Karr, some of his students, and other women in his life. Much of his work stands independent of his actions, but it is vital to read his books with critical distance, and not to valorise Wallace the man.


David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest, is rather like a snowflake – ergodic, iridescent and utterly singular. The ‘post-postmodern’ novel spans some 1079 pages, yet, by Wallace’s own admission to Jonathan Franzen, ‘the story can’t fully be made sense of.’ Its diffuseness, multivalence and almost pedantic employment of endnotes (there are 388) has led to it being dubbed an ‘encyclopaedic novel.’ Its eccentric narrative style has cloyed as many critics as it’s charmed, with A.O. Scott writing that Infinite Jest is ‘impressive in the manner of a precocious child’s performance at a dinner party, and, in the same way, ultimately irritating: […] motivated, mostly, by a desire to show off.’ Yet it is by dint of these ostensible deficiencies that Infinite Jest furnishes us with the chance to luxuriate in the inmost recesses of what A.O. Scott later called ‘the best mind of his generation.’

Infinite Jest is unapologetic in its intellectual onanism, its surfeit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, its ostentatious display of Wallace’s towering erudition. Hal Incandenza, the novel’s protagonist and closest analogue to Wallace himself, acknowledges a revelry in words and learning that borders on avarice, boasting to the University Admissions panel ‘I bet I’ve read everything you’ve read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.”‘ Many of Infinite Jest‘s themes inhere in this wry declaration – egotism, competitiveness and an implacable sense of inferiority that serves to bolster a solipsistic conception of self as sequestered from the horde of Others that is, ironically, the one universal of human existence – ‘Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.’ (One wonders if Wallace had ever chanced upon the ADC).

To be sure, Wallace’s sedulous profusions of recondite trivia can be tiresome; I recall, for example, quitting the book for a full month on encountering a drab and meandering discursion adumbrating the rules of the fictional game Eschaton, the bafflingly convoluted love-child of tennis and game-theory. Infinite Jest is rarely finished on account of tedious little vignettes like the one above – indeed, the prodigious Master of my college, Dr Rowan Williams, confessed he had stopped reading Infinite Jest a third of the way through because ‘Life’s too short.’

A judicious choice on his part, I’m sure. Dr Williams has far too much conviction, humanity and wisdom for Infinite Jest to offer anything above aesthetic pleasure; I exhort him to stick to Anna Karenina. Infinite Jest is a book for the young and broken, for us, the products of ‘the postmodern founders’ patricidal work [which] was great’ but produced a generation of ‘orphans,’ orphans who Wallace says are ‘kind of wishing some parents would come back’ but are ‘uneasy about the fact that we wish they’d come back,’ afraid that our ‘Dionysian revel’ is not actually what we want or need, asking ourselves ‘what’s wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need?’

I aver that this – the limits of freedom and the freedoms of limitation – is the central theme of Infinite Jest, the key to understanding a work that can prove as undulating and opaque as the River Thames. The tedious superfluities of details on, say, sodium pentothal, are frequent but forgivable encumbrances on the cornucopia of dazzlingly lucid passages of interiority we find throughout Infinite Jest, passages that tackle themes of addiction, loneliness and despair with a verbal and emotional acuity I scarcely thought possible.

Take, for example, this description of clinical depression, written with a flair that is lapidary but warm, suffused with the writer’s deepest compassion:

That dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain. Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria. Instead of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of soul, the predator-grade depression Kate Gompert always feels as she withdraws from secret marijuana is itself a feeling. It goes by many names — anguish, despair, torment, or Q.V. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s more authoritative psychotic depression — but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.

This is Wallace at the crest of his powers, engaging with the ugly vicissitudes of addiction, mental illness and life itself with a prose whose floridity is as deft, subtle and charming as Proust’s best work. We see Wallace’s talent for crafting supple portraits of life’s greatest poignancies in this masterful passage on suicidal ideation:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond.

Wallace was indeed trapped by these flames; they singed him for his entire adult life, eventually scorching him when, at the age of 46, he hung himself. His quip that ‘I had kind of a midlife crisis at twenty which probably doesn’t augur well for my longevity’ is perhaps the best precis of his contrapuntal style – one part flippancy, ten parts earnestness. When Wallace eschews the effluvia of displays of his own inarguable intelligence, the reader can relish the blinding effulgence of his lines on the most painful and profound aspects of the human condition, lines that echo with Wallace’s lived experience.

It is this authenticity that elevates Infinite Jest into the most rarefied strata of literature. When Wallace writes about rehab, describing the clinic and the compounds that flanked it ‘seven moons orbiting a dead planet,’ he writes as a man who was so cowed by alcoholism that he had to drop out of his doctorate at Harvard to live in-patient at a rehab facility where he, the middle-class, bookish child of two professors, lived with ‘ 4 tattooed ex-cons.’ This rather patrician description of his roommates casts light on the young Wallace, the 27-year old prodigy from a cossetted world who had just published his debut novel, The Broom of The System, deprecatingly described by Wallace as the autobiographical ‘sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who’s just had this midlife crisis that’s moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction… which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6°F calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct.’ The plodding footnotes and over-detailed expatiations on cinematography, cocaine and tennis are perhaps echoes of this younger, more callow Wallace, but Infinite Jest is dominated by the anxieties of a Wallace more concerned with loneliness, loss and the inexorable privations and challenges of an inherently meaningless world than the veracity of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language.

Make no mistake, the coldness of Wallace’s earlier work had nothing to do with the sort of postmodern penchant for acrid irony that passes for wit in the 21st century, the sort of desultory snark we see routinely celebrated as clever, subversive and fresh (I cast my admonitory eye at Fleabag). He always had an aversion for ‘hip cynical transcendence of sentiment [that] is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.’ In Infinite Jest pathos is made grand; the fragmented human is made whole; despair is made a heroic necessity rather than an ignoble contingency. When Wallace is at his best, he gives us the courage to confront rather than subdue the din of voices that remind us constantly, hauntingly, unendurably, of our inadequacy, isolation and insignificance.

‘Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties – all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know,’ cautioned Wallace with his customarily vatic but grounded tone. He then goes on to list some palliatives for the burden of modern life, ‘Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.’ With the exception of the (unfortunately) often elusive fourth item on the list, I can recommend nothing more heartily than Infinite Jest as both treat and treatment.